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Closing the Gap: Fiction and Reality

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The news has been horrifying and addictive this week, with catastrophe piled on catastrophe, to a degree that––if I had read this in a book or seen it in a movie–I’d be protesting that it was just too unlikely, too far-fetched.
But, topics for novels get ripped from the headlines all the time. Or real-life events remind you of fiction (whether “believable” or not) that you’ve read but never expected to see. Or real life comes up with an event so unbelievable that it stretches you sense of reality.
Hmm … I can’t quite come up with an outright question to ask, but thinking about the theory of fiction and how it can affect and be affected by real world events can act as a buffer between the horrific events on the news and having to actually face that horror. So … what happens when the line between fiction and reality becomes all-too slim? Discuss!

Natural catastrophe and nuclear crisis in Japan have made me very sad. Tears well up my eyes when I see the tsunami devoured the entire coastal town and the devastation afterward. Houses reduced to debris. Cars piled up on the few buildings that are still standing. Families shattered. It is during the most excruciating pain and irrevocable disaster that human virtue and ugliness manifest in the most bare and untainted form. The calm and meekness of the Japanese people are both commendable and surreal. If there is fright and anxiety, they keep to themselves seamlessly. The Japanese people line up outside grocery stores in militant order that is rarely seen anywhere. Neither there is riot nor looting. Everyone keeps the own station, weathering the crisis. It almost resembles the peculiar and extraordinary miasma that Jose Saramago situates his ordinary characters. A disaster runs its natural course and the characters have to survive serious aftermath piled on one another. The Japanese people have demonstrated kindred spirit in human beings, one that partially roots in their religious belief and partially in their highly refined culture. The people are unified, which, in times of troubles and crises, is a huge advantage. The Japanese are resourceful, innovative and disciplined people with a great sense of national pride. This psyche is a result of inveterate education passing on from generation to generation. The civility with which they show to weather the disaster is perfect evidence of such national pride. In face of adversity, they have not tossed morality out of the window. Fiction is what exposes these inner virtues (or the lack of virtues) because we can be so blinded by who we really are, almost instantly blurring what we do not like to confront. Americans like to give the impression that they are very liberal and tolerant of racial and sexual differences, but the national psyche is one that is very hypothetical. When it comes to gay issues, it prefers to hush-hush about them like shoving leaves under the mat. Hypocrisies are what fiction and literature expose because reality doesn’t want to confront the dirt. With all the hush-hush double-standard policies, the bipartisan lies, America is not even close to a homogeneous nation that Japan is.

For Japan the Bells Toll

Strong quake of magnitude 8.9 hit the northeastern coast of Honshu, Japan. Sendai is most hard-hit city. My heart goes out to all the Japanese people and wish them safe and well. For latest information and people finder, visit the crisis response page.


“The first place she went to was Hawaii. She lived on Kauai for two years. She had read somewhere that Kauai’s north shore had an area with springs that produced marvelous water. Already, back then, my sister had a profound interest in water. She believed that human existence was largely controlled by the elements of water. Which is why she went to live on Kauai.” The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, p. 88

Coincidence is truly a beautiful thing, especially when literary reality merges with true-to-life experiences. Kauai is my favorite place on earth. The beautiful, peaceful island is not sought out by most family vacationers and night-life fanatics. Visitors who do go to Kauai stay mostly on south shore, where the weather is drier and sunnier than the drizzly, cooler north shore.(Kauai has 33 micro-climates). To me the north shore is a refuge where spiritual peace prevails and material desires cease to exist. What gadget and means of communication on which urban life depends suddenly become irrelevant in Kauai. There is no need to look at the watch unless I have a dinner reservation. I’m not aware of spiritual water here, but the coast is flanked by beautiful but very discreet beaches, due to the fact that they are not clearly marked. (It’s actually not a bad thing for regulars like me). A beach looms at every turn of the road after Hanalei Bay. Some are more rocky than others. By far my favorite are Ke’e and Haena beaches. Ke’e is famous for is a large shallow reef that provides a relatively protected swimming area and a great opportunity for snorkeling. Haena is a large crescent of white sand beach with some trees along the fringe and a grassy camping area. Haena is a very pretty north shore beach and the scenery is dramatic with lush green mountains rising high out of the ground immediately to the south. I spend hours on end wading the water and reading at these beaches. I cannot wait to be back to Kauai this winter.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle reminds me of many themes Haruki Murakami has touched upon in After Dark: loneliness, isolation, relationship, prostitution, and metaphysical power. Specifically two characters in both novels are sisters. Murakami seems to have a penchant for exploring sororal relationship. Also present are prostitution and sexual desire. As befit to the size of Wind-Up Bird, the novel has an underlying historical scheme pertaining to the Second Sino-Japanese War. What I don’t expect is how some supernatural forces are at the center of three novels on a roll that I have read.

Memoirs of a Geisha: The Film

Almost four years after I read the novel by Arthur Golden, I finally watched the movie that was said to cater toward American audience, or non-Asians in general. Starring Li Gong, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, and Youki Kudoh, the film invited a dispute over its credibility on the fact that three Chinese actresses were playing geishas—traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance. The political tension between China and Japan in 2005 might have fueled the casting controversy in which some of the most prominent roles, including Sayuri, Mahema, and Hatsumomo, did not go to Japanese actresses (although it’s agreed upon that the cast is box office-proof internationally).

Memoirs of a Geisha revolves around a young girl, named Chiyo, who is sold into the life of a geisha and her struggle as a geisha to find love. Chiyo’s road to become a geisha was thorny. She was constant the target of bullying from a senior geisha who hated anyone more successful than she was and who thrived to rid of all prospective rivals. Even though the senior geisha had falsely accused her, faulted her, and rendered her debut a standstill, her determination to become a geisha did not spring from the inventive to revenge on her enemy. The book focuses on Sayuri’s struggle and her search for love, hoping that one day, as a successful, well-sought geisha, she will become part of the life of the chairman, who had shown her kindness and gave her a handkerchief as a keepsake. The movie, dropping the details of a geisha training and the nuances of artistic rituals, emphasizes the intricate relations between four women who aspire to become geishas of their times.

Despite strong performances, the screenplay was lacking, the characters not engaging, the story (145 minutes) seems to have dragged on and, in deleting some of the details that have proven to be indispensable, it affords no real insights on being a geisha, other than the vicious competition and effacement between geishas. If Arthur Golden’s novel is meant to be an epic drama, the movie presents itself as an overripe melodrama that climaxes at the outcome of feuding geishas. Unlike the novel, the movie really lacks the drive.

Genji 10-13


Chapter 10 Sasaki / The Sacred Tree. In which Genji’s father the Kiritsubo emperor dies, and Genji’s life takes a dramatic turn for worse. The Rokujô lady leaves society accompanying her daughter Akikonomu, who has been appointed a priestess, to the temple. Since the new emperor is Kikoden’s son, she and the Minister of the Right have their way. Fujisubo commissions religious services in hopes of freeing herself from Genji’s attentions and exhausts every device to avoid him. But she realizes the only way is to take up religious order and to be a nun. Relinquishing her title is the only way to resolve the implacable hostility of Kokiden. Fuijisubo’s decision resonates the opening theme that recurs throughout the book: The heart of a parent is not darkness, and yet he wanders lost in thoughts upon his child.” [13] Genji is exiled for being caught in Oborozukiyo’s bed.

Chapter 11 Hana Chiru Sato 花散里 / The Orange Blossoms. In which Genji sleeps with Reikeiden and her sister Hanachirusato. This chapter marks the unbroken succession of reverses and afflictions of Genji’s life after his exile from the court.

Chapter 12 Suma 須磨 / Suma. In which Genji goes into exile after being caught in Oborozukiyo’s bed. His chief sorrows and worries, as the line on p.13 has foreshadowed, are for his son with Fujisudo. But as time passes, the emperor and others in the court find that Genji has been in their thoughts.

Chapter 13 Akashi 明石 / Akashi. In which Genji impregnates the Akashi lady. This chapter marks Genji’s return from exile. The messenger from Akashi and dream of the old emperor convince Genji to leave the shore of Akashi. At the same tithe late emperor also appears in the emperor’s dream for Genji’s restoration. The New Year marks the issue of amnesty that will bring Genji back to the court.

References to Chinese Poetry. The Tale of Genji demonstrates the strong influence of Chinese literature on Japan during the time period.When his friends and brothers praise his Chinese poems during the early days of his exile, Queen Kokiden is infuriated. She quotes (p.251 Edward Seidensticker) a very famous phrase from the Shih Chi chronicle of the reign of Chin Shih-huang-ti that a enuch planning rebellion showed the high courtiers a deer and required them to call it a horse, and so assured himself that they feared him. In another occasion, when Genji plays koto himself, he reflects on the lady, Wang Chao-jun, one of the four beauties, who was dispatched to the Huns from the harem of the Han emperor Yuan-ti because she had failed to bribe the artists who did portraits of court ladies, and the emperor therefore thought her ill favored. While Genji himself fell out of favor because of his own wrongdoing, the references to Chinese classics abound in the book but they do not make less of the Japanese traditions that this novel professes.

Genji 5-9


Chapter 5 Wakamurasaki 若紫 / Lavender. In which Murasaki is introduced. Murasaki, at least ten years of his junior, has a striking resemblance to Fujisubo for whom he yearned.  “The child must stand in the place of one whom she resembled.” For this reason alone, Genji decided to bring her to the court with him, although the suit for the hand of a mere did occur to him as being capricious. Meanwhile, Genji’s wife, Aoi, continued to treat him with such indifference that he thought her “the stiffest, remotest person in the world.” Fujisubo lamented the burden of her sin, since she had been meeting Genji at night in secrecy.

Chapter 6 Suetsumuhana 末摘花 / Safflower. In which Suetsumuhana is introduced. The princess of Hitachi is unresponsive and outrageously shy toward Genji’s flurry of letters.

Chapter 7 Momiji no Ga 紅葉賀 / An Autumn Excursion. In which Genji and Fujitsubo’s son is born, and Genji has an affair with Naishi. Fuijisubo was tormented by feelings of guilt and apprehension, to the point that she felt she had fallen under a maiignant spell. The baby she bore for Genji, whom the Emperor had mistaken as his, became a source of boundless guilt. As the Emperor made plan for his abdication, Genji sadly reflected that Fujisudo was now in an unassailable position that she was beyond his reach. Genji’s bearing a son with the Emperor’s concubine is as creepy as his sexual issue with an older lady, Naishi.

Chapter 8 Hana no En 花宴 / The Festival of the Cherry Blossoms. In which Genji sleeps with Oborozukiyo, the lady of the misty moon. She was the sister of Kokiden, the mother of the Crown Prince, who would become the new emperor. With the new reign Genji’s career languished, and while he must be more discreet about his romantic escapades as he rose in rank, he became more promiscuous to me. The Queen’s sister? What about the love he swore for Fuijisubo?

Chapter 9 Aoi / Heartvine. In which Genji’s wife Aoi is killed by the Lady Rokujô’s ghost and Genji has sex with Murasaki. Lady Rokujô was present at the Kamo Festival, slighted by the entourage of Genji’s wife. Was it literally Lady Rokujô’s ghost it was, or she could practice black magic? Whatever the cause must be, the spirit that impregnated Aoi eluded the power of the most skilled exorcist. Did the Rokujô minister the spirit? The ancient Japanese did believe that the soul of one so lost in sad thoughts could trouble another body.

His promiscuity is beyond control. Very creepy indeed. While he despises all the polygamous affairs that were rife in court life, he himself was also engaged in such libertine escapades. He’s total hypocrite to me.

Genji 1-4 Addendum

I was searching for a genealogical chart for the novel and I came up with a detailed one from this Japanese website. According to the website, the chart is reproduced from Richard Bowring,  Murasaki Shikibu: The Tale of Genji. (Cambridge, 1988) I include a picture file below:

GenjiChartThe genealogy shows that Genji has two formal marriages, with Aoi (Chapter 2), the Akashi lady (Chapter 13, to be read), and the Third Princess (much later). For the following week, I plan to read to the end of Chapter 9, Aoi /Heart-to-Heart, since Chapters 7 and 8 are relatively short.

Chapter 1 Kiritsubo 桐壺 / The Paulownia Pavilion. In which Genji is born, his mother dies, and Fujitsubo, the emperor’s concubine, is introduced.

Chapter 2 Hahakigi 帚木 / The Broom Tree. In which men tell stories about women of different ranks and Genji meets Utsusemi, the wife of Iyo-no-suke a provincial governor, and was courted in vain by Genji.

Chapter 3 Utsusemi 空蝉 / The Shell of the Locust. In which Genji crawls into the bed of Utsusemi’s stepdaughter by accident. He seduces her by mistake.

Chapter 4 Yûgao 夕顔 / The Evening Faces. In which Yûgao, a beautiful girl who lives near Genji’s old nurse’s house, is killed by the Rokujô Lady’s ghost (not known at first), and Genji takes charge of Tamakazura, the daughter of Yûgao and Tô no Chûjô.

Further Reading:
Jackie’s First Impressions
CB James’s Thoughts

Genji 1-4


I was off a slow start so I’m trailing behind. My intention was to peruse the translation by Royall Tyler. I have found Edward Seidensticker’s writing more accessible to the understanding of the plot. Like any epic novel that covers a continuous period in history, The Tale of Genji does not follow a structure of plot. The book just unfolds as characters age naturally on a chronological path. Some of my observations and thoughts:

  • Although Genji was the Emperor’s most beloved son, but that his mother did not belong to the first rank in the court, she was deprived of backing. The emperor’s doting on her after Genji’s birth only accelerated her fall because her detractors were many. Once again it shows that palace is notoriously a web of conflicting backroom politics. Every dalliance is an act of political consequence.
  • The Tale of Genji depicts court life in 11th century, the Heian era of Japanese history. That it was contemporary of the Tang Dynasty in China, numerous references are made to Chinese poetry, which achieved its golden age during Tang Dynasty. Numerous references to Yang Kuei-fei, one of the Four Beauties in ancient China, are made to illuminate that ladies are to live in a life with no luster. They are to submit and to feign ignorance.
  • Genji’s flight from one love affair to another is distantly reminiscent of that of Jia Bao-yu in The Dream of the Red Chambers, the greatest epic novel ever written in Chinese history. But obviously Genji has predated by at least six centuries. His dangerous passion and romantic impulses have rendered him wasted. Maybe the source of his restlessness is the forbidden love between him and Fujisubo, whom his father the emperor has taken as a concubine after Genji’s mother died.
  • One of the most confusing aspects of the book is the anonymous girls, women, mistresses, and daughters that are dotted in the narratives. Only some of the most significant female characters are named. The lack of accountability also suggests how uncertain the world was for women at that time. They were like bits of driftwood at the mercy of men.
  • Another theme that is proven to be pivotal in understanding the book is incarnation. “What legacy from a former life could have brought him to this mortal peril?” [ES translation p.78] Genji himself is caught up in the ever turning wheel of pessimistic Buddhism. Through his purposeless navigation from one affair to another, a sense of evanescence is evoked from the reading.

Further Reading:
Jackie’s First Impressions
CB James’s Thoughts

Next Read-Along: The Tale of Genji

genjiAfter watching the Korean epic series Dae Jang Geum, which was based on the true story of the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, I have been intrigued by the scheming and insidious insinuations of court life. Some of you have asked if I would host another read-along and what book I would select for the project. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu would be the next selection. I plan to peruse the most recent English translation (2001), by Royall Tyler, which tries to be very faithful to the original text. Deemed the world’s first novel, written in 11th century, The Tale of Genji is considered the pinnacle. The book, which contains a central character and a very large number of major and minor characters, delineates a sequence of events happening over a period of time covering the central character’s lifetime and beyond. It is known for its internal consistency, psychological depiction, and characterization. That the work does not make use of a plot; instead, much as in real life, events just happen and characters evolve simply by growing older, is reminiscent of the 16th century Chinese classics The Dream of the Red Chamber. Each of the 54 chapters may be read as an individual story. I am contemplating a very easy pace of just reading two chapters a week starting in June.

Would you like to spend the summer in Japan?


Japanese Literature

Note: This is a pre-programmed post. I’m in Hong Kong for a wedding until Monday, October 6. I will attend to all your comments when I return. Don’t forget to stop by on Monday as I’ll be hosting a stop in the TLC Book Tour for Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers.

I’m aware of the Japanese Reading Challenge, which requires three books in any genres: novel, poetry, graphical novel, and children’s books. The two I’ll share with you might not qualify because the authors aren’t Japanese, but they have been well-received by readers in local bookstores. I picked up these books (both published this year) a while ago waiting to snap into the mood for them.

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery is set in late nineteenth century Japan. It’s the story of Aurelia, a young French-American girl who, after the death of her mother and her missionary uncle, finds herself lost and alone and in need of a new family. Knowing only a few words of Japanese she hides in a Japanese tea house and is adopted by the family who own it: gradually falling in love with both the Japanese tea ceremony and with her young mistress, Yukako.

The novel is drawn from a history shrouded in secrets about two women, it also portrays resplendent tea parties that women, other than those who are entertaining, are not welcome. Japan’s warriors and well-off men would gather in tatami-floored structures—teahouses—to participate in an event that was equal parts ritual dance and sacramental meal.

The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz is a fictionalized reconstruction of the private history of Haruko, a young woman of good family, who marries the Crown Prince of Japan, the heir to the Chrysanthemum Throne, in 1959. She is the first non-aristocratic woman to enter the longest-running, almost hermetically sealed, and mysterious monarchy in the world. Met with cruelty and suspicion by the Empress and her minions, Haruko is controlled at every turn. The only interest the court has in her is her ability to produce an heir. After finally giving birth to a son, Haruko suffers a nervous breakdown and loses her voice. However, determined not to be crushed by the imperial bureaucrats, she perseveres.